Risk vs Reward: How Adopting a Vegetarian Diet Can Be Better AND Worse For Your Health (And is it Actually Better for You?)

You might be surprised to hear this, but 16-25% of vegetarians are classified as overweight or obese. Yes, despite what you have been told, you can both be a vegetarian and unhealthy. But how can this be? How can you only eat fruit and vegetables and be overweight? This is one of the questions we aim to answer in this article.

While it is true that meat-eaters have almost triple the obesity rates of vegetarians, the fact remains that vegetarian diets come with the risk of not only obesity but additional risks too.

Reports of risks of decreases in brain health, strokes, hair loss, and even depression related to vegetarianism exist throughout the medical world. This article will partially focus on helping you better understand why these pitfalls exist, despite vegetarianism being generally better for you.

In the interest of fairness, we will also be discussing all of the ways that vegetarianism is undeniably healthier for you. Lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, lower hypertension, and lower risk of diabetes and cancer!

Additionally, we will be providing you with some advice on how to ensure that, if you do decide to go vegetarian, or if you already are, you will be reaping all of the rewards with none of the risks.

Without further ado, let us jump right in and tackle the question, “Is vegetarianism healthier for you?”

What Is a Vegetarianism?

An important thing to know right off the bat is that being ‘vegetarian’ does not mean that a person is not consuming any animal products. Instead, it may refer to someone choosing to substitute most of their diet with plant-based foods.

Some vegetarians, like vegans, choose not to eat meat or meat products, whereas other vegetarians, like flexitarians, give up meat intermittently. Middle-ground vegetarians, like Lacto-ovo vegetarians, decide to give up meat, but not eggs or dairy.

As different as these diets may seem, all of these forms of vegetarianism are concerned with a diet that is less meat and more plant-based.

People may choose this diet for various reasons, like ethical or religious reasons. But more recently, people have chosen vegetarianism for health reasons. However, contrary to popular belief, vegetarianism is not automatically healthier than a meat-inclusive diet in some cases.

Let us explain.

How Can Vegetarianism Become Unhealthy & What Are The Risks?

According to a poll by the Vegetarian Resource Group, the top reason for ‘going vegetarian’ in America is health-related. Although most people can go vegetarian and enjoy excellent health benefits, there can be possible health risks related to this diet, which many overlook.

These risks may include:

1) Increased risk of stroke:

  • While vegetarianism can benefit your overall heart health, it can also lead to an increased risk of stroke! While the statistics are likely to vary from region to region due to different versions of the diet, there is evidence that a vegetarian diet does not lower the risk of stroke and may even increase this risk by up to 20%. But why is this the case?
  • Studies show that this may be linked to the quality of foods some vegetarians eat in place of meat and not necessarily the quantity of plant-based foods consumed.
  • For example, a vegetarian will not suffer this risk if they eat a lot of vegetables, but if the vegetables they eat are French fries, then their risk of stroke will increase dramatically.
  • Obesity is also connected to an increased risk of stroke. While many do not associate vegetarianism and obesity, vegetarians who consume a lot of refined carbohydrates and processed foods are likely to become obese. This kind of vegetarian diet can eliminate the health benefits one would expect to see and puts you at an even greater risk of having health problems than if you were on a balanced, non-vegetarian diet.

2) Increased risk of hair loss:

  • An increased risk of hair loss is the subsequent possible risk of consuming a vegetarian diet. This is because vegetarianism is strongly linked to a lack of protein and a deficiency in iron, zinc, and essential B vitamins. Non-vegetarians get these vitamins and nutrients through meat, while vegetarians get theirs through plant-based sources.
  • Plant-based sources of iron (for example, spinach or dried beans) are harder for the body to absorb than iron provided through meat, which may lead to iron deficiency. (We will spare you the science mumbo-jumbo and make the explanation short.) Without enough iron, cells do not repair and reproduce themselves very well or very fast. These include cells related to hair growth. This can then result in unwanted hair loss.

3) Increased risk to brain health: 

  • Good brain health is connected to choline, a nutrient found in meat and poultry that is not naturally produced in the human body. This nutrient has been studied and is closely related to essential bodily functions, including maintaining a healthy brain.
  • A fully vegan diet will mean that you are very likely to suffer from decreased choline intake and should strongly consider taking a supplement to make up for this deficiency.
  • On the other hand, ovo-vegetarians are less at risk because eating a few eggs a week can boost their choline intake to avoid any adverse effects on overall brain health.

4) Increased risk of depression/mood problems:

  • The research on this is mixed – some findings indicate that vegetarians are happier, less anxious, and less stressed than non-vegetarians, whereas other studies have found the opposite.
  • These researchers noted that studies showing that vegetarians experience more mood problems could be due to mental health issues that existed before people adopted a vegetarian diet.
  • However, anxiety and stress could also result from, or be exacerbated by, nutrient deficiencies.

5) Increased risk of vitamin and mineral deficiency:

  • Non-meat eaters can suffer from a lack of vitamin D and calcium, which can lead to more brittle bones.
  • They can also lack zinc, which can lead to lowered immune systems and low iron levels, which can cause anemia and a whole range of other health issues.

Now that we have seen the risks let us consider some of the rewards vegetarians may enjoy following their plant-based diets. This will help us decide whether vegetarianism is healthier or not.

What Are the Health Rewards Associated with Vegetarianism?

A well-balanced vegetarian diet consisting of fresh fruit and vegetables and plenty of whole grains, protein, nuts, and seeds has many health benefits. Some of the reasons vegetarianism is healthier include, to name a few, lower blood pressure levels, lower levels of bad cholesterol, less risk of cancer, decreased risk of diabetes, and overall, fewer chronic illnesses.

It is also much easier to lose and maintain weight on a vegetarian diet. Knowing this, it is not shocking to read that vegetarians have much lower obesity, heart disease, and hypertension when compared to meat-eaters. Need we say more?

Vegetarianism is so much better for you and your body because vegetarian diets typically consist of less fat and sugar than non-vegetarian diets. This has a positive impact on heart health. Additionally, less sugar is excellent for maintaining healthy blood sugar levels (which is why vegetarians are much less likely to develop diabetes!).

While avoiding health risks typically associated with a meat-eating diet is entirely possible by maintaining a balanced diet and keeping track of your calorie intake, going vegetarian makes it a lot easier and simpler while making you, scientifically, healthier.

Does Becoming a Vegetarian Protect Against Diseases?

A vegetarian diet is often touted as reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, stroke, obesity, and premature death. A recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that people who followed a vegetarian diet had about 12 percent less risk of dying over six years than those who ate meat.

But it’s hard to tell whether being a vegetarian causes better health or whether healthy people choose to become vegetarians.

Most research studies have found vegetarians tend to weigh less and exercise more than meat-eaters. Vegetarian diets were also associated with healthier food choices, including fewer calories, sodium, added sugar, and trans fats.

There’s another reason why vegetarians might live longer: People who eat a lot of vegetables tend to engage in physical activity more frequently, according to a review article published in the journal Preventive Medicine.

Is vegetarianism healthy for children?

Vegetarian diets are often promoted as healthier than omnivorous ones because they contain less cholesterol, saturated fat, and dietary fiber. But does it really matter whether a child eats meat or plants? Evidence suggests that eating meat causes long-term health problems in children.

So what do we know about vegetarian diets? A recent review of studies looking specifically at vegetarian kids found that they tend to weigh less than their peers, even though they don’t consume fewer calories. Vegetarians also tend to have lower blood pressure and better bone density. However, vegetarians still have poorer intakes of iron, zinc, vitamin B12, folate, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and vitamins D and E.

While some parents choose to raise their children vegan or vegetarian, others opt for a mixed diet. And while many vegans and vegetarians claim that their diets are healthier, experts say it’s hard to tell how much difference there is between plant-based and omnivore diets.

Vegetarianism during pregnancy

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recently published a position paper regarding vegetarian diets during pregnancy. In it, the organization states that there isn’t enough evidence to support claims that vegetarians have better health outcomes than omnivores. However, the group says vegetarian diets might offer some benefits to pregnant women, including lower risk of gestational diabetes, preterm delivery, and low birthweight babies.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says there isn’t enough evidence to recommend specific dietary changes during pregnancy. However, it does say that vegetarians tend to eat less meat and dairy products than omnivores do. This could mean that vegetarians might consume fewer calories overall, which could help women lose weight throughout pregnancy.

However, limited research indicates that where food accessibility is adequate, vegetarians’ pregnancy outcomes, such as birth weight and pregnancy duration, are similar to those in non-vegetarian pregnancies.

To Answer the Question…

So, is vegetarianism healthier? The simple answer is yes.

After considering the possible health risks of following a vegetarian diet and weighing these up against the rewards, it is evident that vegetarianism is healthier for you.

The risks associated with vegetarianism are, for the most part, avoidable with the proper nutritional education and supplements. The main dangers for those following a plant-based diet are hair loss, mood problems, stroke, poor brain health, and other problems associated with vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

You can almost completely avoid the risks of vegetarianism we have discussed by simply maintaining a well-balanced, plant-based diet that includes plenty of whole foods, enough protein, iron, essential vitamins, and supplements.

Plus, the benefits far outweigh the risks! Most anyone would agree that vegetarianism is far better for you in the long run than meat diets. The benefit of avoiding life-threatening conditions like cancer, heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes cannot be overlooked or undermined.

It is recommended that you visit your physician if you are uncertain about which diet would be healthiest for you.

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